Before I even started reading James Fallows' latest epistle from China, an exploration of the nation's environmental woes with the contrarian title "China's Silver Lining," I was hoping that the Atlantic article would provide a compelling counterpoint to last fall's demoralizing analysis of the same topic, Elizabeth Economy's "The Great Leap Backward."
Economy painted a pretty dire picture in her Foreign Affairs essay, a follow-up to her bleak book on the same topic, "The River Runs Black." But Fallows has been contributing some stellar reporting from China over the last year, and if he felt compelled to make an argument that with even the barest shades of optimism, I wanted to hear it.
But I can't say I'm seeing much of a silver lining after grappling with his reasons for cheer. Among the highlights -- China's immense wastefulness offers an opportunity for rapid progress, and "sophisticated people are honestly trying to do the right thing."
There's an entrepreneur who has come up with a way to funnel the heat formerly wasted by cement plants into an electricity co-generation plant. There are reforms in the curriculum at the Central Communist Party School, which now includes environmental training. And there are signs that the central government means business when it talks about taking environmental protection seriously.
But even Fallows has to admit near the end that this is all pretty thin gruel when compared to the sheer scale and speed of China's industrial development. As just one example, Fallows notes that China is aggressively rolling out renewable energy, but even so, "because demand for power is increasing much faster than renewable supply, China burns about 10 percent more coal each year than it did the year before."
Fallows' larger point appears to be that outsiders don't appreciate how seriously China takes its environmental problems or what chances there might be for positive change. That may be true, but it's equally fair to say that many outside observers realize just how big are the obstacles that China must overcome to simultaneously modernize and clean up its act, and we are dismayed.